Religion -> Violence?

After a long hiatus, I return to look at Rebecca McLaughlin’s book Confronting Christianity. Bertrand Russell (Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? in Why I am Not a Christian), and more recently Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) have been quick to point out an apparent connection between religion and violence. Islamic conquest of the Holy Land and Christian Crusades to retake the land play a role in the conversation. Of course we can go even earlier to the Israelite conquest of Canaan as related in Joshua and other historical narratives, including parts of Judges and Samuel.

Rebecca argues that the reality is far more complex and if we look carefully, we must attribute the cause to the depravity of the human heart. Yes, Christianity has been co-opted to support and propagate human violence against other humans. If we deny this we will lose all credibility, the history is far too clear. Christianity has been used to justify slavery, racial purity, wars, and massacres (Spanish colonization of the America’s may have resulted in the intentional killing of millions although without accurate statistics and a separation of death by disease from death by violence it is impossible to be definite). All of “Christian” Europe and the Americas has been complicit in this to one extent or another. Nor is Africa free of sin in this regard (consider the Rawandan genocide which, while not a “Christian” war, did involve Christians in unfortunate ways as Pope Francis acknowledged).

Of course it isn’t just Christianity. Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are also guilty. The diaspora has given Jews less power, but they too have been guilty given the chance. And it isn’t just religion. Secular regimes established in Karl Marx’s aim to remove religion as “the opium of the people,” and the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions” have no better record and arguably a worse one. Stalin and Mao effectively killed off large numbers of people. Stalin’s great purge of 1937-38 resulted in 0.7 to 1.2 million deaths. Robert Thurston puts documented executions in 1937-38 at 681,692 almost equally split between the years (p. 63 Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia). China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in millions of deaths – perhaps 10’s of millions.

So does religion lead to violence? History tells us that it certainly can lead to great atrocities when used to define tribes of people as “us” and “them.” Power and the advancement of me and my people play a big role. But it isn’t religion itself that breeds violence.

So what about Christianity?

Looking at the New Testament rather than focusing on Western history suggests that Christianity itself is not the root cause. In fact, we would be better off if more of those who claim to be Christians put their faith into practice. None of us really know what we are capable (good or evil, heroic or cowardly) until put to the test. As Rebecca writes, and most of us must honestly agree, “But put me in a situation where violence is to my advantage, and who knows what I might be capable of. I would like to think I would have given my life to resist the Nazis. But my moral courage has never been tested in that way, and the older I get, the less confident I am of my own virtue.” (p. 93) I like to think that I would have seen the errors in US treatment of Native American tribes, African slaves and Asian immigrants, if living in the late 1800’s as I do today, but we are all blindered by our situation. We need to look carefully at the New Testament to remove these blinders. After the death and resurrection of Jesus the gospel is to be preached to all peoples. If you think about it, there is no clear dividing line between us and them when all are invited in. Even a current difference need not be permanent. Christians are called to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44) or as Luke puts it:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. … Do to others as you would have them do to you. … But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. (Lk 6:27-28, 31, 35-38)

We are certainly not called to use power to hurt the weak and vulnerable. Nor to topple the powerful. Aggression (hostile or violent behavior or attitudes intending to dominate, master, or eliminate another) even when done in the name of Christ, is not Christian.

Rebecca concludes her chapter:

Does religion cause violence? It certainly can. But millions of people are driven by their faith to love and serve others. And Christianity in particular, has served as a fertilizer for democracy, a motivation for justice, and a mandate for healing. If we think the world would be less violent without it, we may need to check our facts. (p. 94)

To what extent is Christianity responsible for violence?

To what extent can we separate our faith from the evil desires and actions of humans?

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